“This is true ensemble playing, where no one actor is the lead, but where each actor plays every part as though it were a starring role”
There are many illusions at work in the wonderful Art Of Illusion by Alexis Michalik, and you will enjoy watching this tale of magic tricks unfold. Waleed Akhtar’s lively translation of the French original, together with brilliant ensemble work by the actors under the direction of Tom Jackson Greaves, means the playing time of one hundred minutes flies by. It helps, too, that the production is staged in the more intimate Hampstead Theatre downstairs. It’s a space ideally suited for a play that has to be seen in close up by the audience, to succeed. The flexibility of the space allows a cast of characters from different times and places to constantly change right in front of your eyes — a sort of magic all by itself. And oh yes — let’s not forget the sounds of high stakes soccer matches that are a constant background to the action. On more than one occasion, it’s soccer that literally saves the day for our intrepid magicians in this play.
Soccer and magic tricks? What kind of a story is Michalik telling in The Art Of Illusion? We begin by thinking it’s an unlikely love story between a lover of mathematics who has come to believe in fate, and a petty thief who has stolen her bag. When December decides, on a whim, to return the stolen bag to April (yes, those really are their names) an extraordinary story unfolds. A Watchmaker is presiding over a tale that goes back several hundred years and connects seemingly unconnected people. What starts as a random encounter between two people turns out to be anything but. And as part of the magic of The Art of Illusion, this is also a story about how magic morphs into the tricks of early film making. We get to see how one Georges Méliès uses his knowledge of stage magic to produce film magic. And that’s just one intriguing tale told by this medley of extraordinary characters who begin as traveling conjurers and mutate into inventors of film. The biggest trick of all is watching how Michalik weaves his stories of 1776, 1828, 1871,1984 and 2000 together. Watching The Art Of Illusion is to marvel at the way in which the dramatist, as conjuror of time, mixes and matches all these different periods together while still moving the action forward. It’s ultimately all a gigantic act of illusion, starting with the magic tricks the actors perform to get the audience warmed up, to the way in which they transform from character to character. These character changes, often across gender and time periods, embody the same kind of effortless legerdemain in the acting, as the playwright manifests in his script.
There’s a lot, dramaturgically speaking, packed into The Art Of Illusion. The whole thing succeeds because every part of this production has been so carefully crafted, and fits together so well. Jackson Greaves has done sterling work in the direction and staging of this clever and engaging script, ably assisted by designer Simon Kenny. Matt Haskins and Yvonne Gilbert do great work with the lighting and sound, and there’s an “Illusion Consultant” (Ben Hart) on hand to assist with getting the magic tricks right. But the lion’s share of praise should go to the actors. Rina Fatania, Bettrys Jones, Martin Hyder, Norah Lopez Holden, Brian Martin and Kwaku Mills keep up a relentless pace, yet each character they portray is so clearly defined. This is true ensemble playing, where no one actor is the lead, but where each actor plays every part as though it were a starring role. The closest anyone comes to stealing a scene is probably Rina Fatania, whose portrayal of a mouthy fifteen year old video game player, is a great conclusion to the dazzling tapestry of characters in this play.
The Art Of Illusion is playing now at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until January 28th. Don’t miss it.
“Using multi-talented actor musicians, it is in reality a delight to watch throughout”
The premise of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind” is interesting, and quite fun; if not a little implausible. A group of children stumble upon an escaped killer in a barn and through their unwavering belief that he is the Second Coming, they decide to keep his whereabouts a secret from the authorities. Despite being inescapably aware of the townsfolk’s collective hysteria about a murderer being on the loose.
The musical’s book (by Lloyd Webber himself, with Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards) has taken the action Stateside from its humble, English birthplace. The original novel, by Mary Hayley Bell, was set in Sussex while the 1961 film had moved up to Lancashire. We now find ourselves in the heart of the Louisiana Bible Belt. It is the 1950s and religious zeal is as high as the crop in the cornfields. Spearheaded by the adolescent Swallow (Lydia White), the young ones seem to question their elders’ unflinching faith yet refuse to bend from their own fledgling faith. Contradiction seems to be an underlying motif to this story.
The central theme pits the childhood innocence against adult cynicism; young, wide-eyed faith in ‘good’ against the older, blind faith in ‘evil’. Swallow symbolises the former, yet in Tom Jackson Greave’s staging she is too mature to give real credibility to her naive and innocent belief in ‘The Man’ who has unwittingly become Jesus Christ incarnate. White sweeps this worry aside, though, with an energetic and enthralling performance that sees her in customary fine voice.
Musically the show is disjointed, which isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but in this case it’s hard to understand the shifts in styles. However, there is no denying the quality of music. Each number would pass the Old Grey Whistle test. Lloyd Webber’s theatricality is in full view, framed with influences of gospel, nineties pop, sixties rock, and with reprises and leitmotifs aplenty. And, of course, the mark of the late, great Jim Steinman is stamped indelibly across much of the libretto. “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts” and “Nature of the Beast” have hot-footed over straight from a Meatloaf gig.
Incongruous to the infectious score is Jackson Greaves’ choreography, much of which feels out of place with the lyrical narrative. The ghost of Swallow’s mother, dancing like a spectral Kate Bush at every conceivable moment is eventually jarring. The intent is clear but unnecessarily overplayed. Similarly overstated is the bible bashing nature of the community. Conversely, the inherent Southern racism of the era is not fully given voice; its mouthpiece confined predominantly to the red neck sheriff – albeit convincingly and masterfully portrayed by the charismatic Toby Webster.
I must confess at this point that I do feel churlish picking at the faults, which are mainly down to the book. For this production is really quite brilliant. Using multi-talented actor musicians, it is in reality a delight to watch throughout. So, hats off to a wonderful cast. ‘The Man’ mistaken for the second coming is indeed a shining star guiding us through the show. Robert Tripolino’s presence and soaring voice fills the auditorium, while his performance remains alluringly intimate. With a twitchy sensitivity that offsets his opportunistic and manipulative pragmatism Tripolino embodies the unpredictability of a man with nothing left to lose. Complemented (rather than supported – this is very much an ensemble piece) by such a strong cast we are steered away from the fault-lines. Lewis Cornay and Chrissie Bhima as the doomed, ‘born-to-run’ teens, Amos and Candy, are an electric duo, while Lloyd Gorman’s fierce yet foibled father figure is a masterful presence.
The musicianship is astounding, led by onstage musical director, Elliot Mackenzie (the manic snake preacher and minister) the ensemble is a dynamic band, shifting from whispering intimacy to orchestral storms while seamlessly swapping instruments with extraordinary sleight of hand. Andrew Exeter’s rich and evocative lighting add to the magic. “Whistle Down the Wind” may have had its fair share of detractors in the past, and it does have its weaknesses, but this revival on the whole highlights its strengths.